“Don’t just be the servant of the state, meaning that you will clean up the mess caused by bad social policy. Do not just put a band-aid on the sores of society. Don’t just be service providers—be prophetic interrogators.”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr

The Trussell Trust supports a network of 41 food bank centres across Northern Ireland – making up roughly 5% of the organisation’s UK-wide network. Churches or faith based-organisations manage most.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, more people than ever have experienced destitution, unable to afford the essentials, such as food and shelter, that we all need to survive.

There are now providers of emergency food in most cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland, where food bank use is now 40% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. This is much higher than the UK-wide increase of 11%.

Northern Ireland also faces a much higher rate of destitution than many other parts of the UK – meaning someone is unable to afford the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. Research indicates every UK region is projected to have more than a 10% increase in destitution in 2022. However, a 67% increase in destitution is projected for Northern Ireland. As the increased cost of living begins to affect us all, people on low-incomes will continue to be affected disproportionately.

While The Trussell Trust wants to see an end to the need for emergency food, the reality is that food banks face a year of almost unprecedented demand on their services.

Things need to change, so what can churches in Northern Ireland do?

“We have to be pro-active. What we don’t want to do is just hand out food packages as and when people need them. We want to be able to help them in other ways, finding out why they’re in that position and getting them back to where they need to be.” 

Food Bank manager

Perhaps we need to reflect corporately and individually on the biblical prioritisation of justice over empty worship…from Amos 5:

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream

The provision of emergency food may be a worshipful expression of loving service to others, but the data shows it is having little impact on lifting people out of poverty.

Here are some practical suggestions that we as churches could consider as “prophetic interrogators” for justice.

1.  On the doorsteps, ask our elected representatives to fulfil their commitment to delivering an anti-poverty strategy for Northern Ireland.

Good policy can make a difference. Evidence has shown that the recently ended £20 uplift in the social security system through universal credit temporarily lifted 400,000 children out of poverty.

Under the New Decade, New Approach the NI Executive agreed to the development of an Anti-Poverty Strategy that would be evidence-based and address objective need. However, a strategy is yet to be approved.

The Presbyterian Moderator recently called for this. It would be helpful if other churches added their voice to this.

2. Consider supporting cash-first approaches to addressing emergency need.

People are forced to charities for emergency food when there isn’t enough money for the essentials. The vast majority (95%) of people that need support from a food bank in the Trussell Trust’s network are destitute. Provision of food does not address the underlying issue that the person in hardship still does not have an adequate income.

In the same way that relief charities have promoted cash donations as the most effective way to support people in crisis in Ukraine, locally we should prioritise the dignity and knowledge of people in greatest need to be able to buy things for themselves.

3. Church leaders should get to know local community-based support services.

Over four in ten (45%) people have told us that a lack of support from family, friends or local organisations was directly related to their need to use a food bank.

Churches may run effective food banks, but they are not always best-placed to provide wider support. Local advice centres, family support hubs, and even constituency offices can be key support services in the infrastructure of a community. An effective safety-net needs to be joined-together so that a food bank is a last resort.

4. Listen to the stories of those who live in poverty

Some of the wealthiest churches in Northern Ireland manage the largest social action operations in the country. If we are truly engaging with people who have direct experience of poverty, what difference is this making to our language, our liturgy, and the accessibility of our church activities?

There are deep issues of class and traditionalism in NI Christianity that have not gone away.

When we take the time to listen to people’s stories, this will lead to increased empathy and understanding about what causes poverty, and provoke greater willingness to take action. “Nothing About Us… Without Us” is a slogan used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. What does this mean for how people with direct experience of poverty engage in the life of a church?

As the cost of living escalates from a crisis to an emergency, may we work together as prophetic interrogators of a vision for a Northern Ireland where;

  • people have enough money in their pocket to buy their own food;
  • the root causes of destitution are met in local communities;
  • there is a greater public resolve, empathy and understanding about what drives people to a food bank;
  • and there is a renewed willingness to take action.

Jonny Currie is Northern Ireland Network Lead for The Trussell Trust, and a Contemporary Christianity board member.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.